There’s no “why” there. That’s the problem with The Social Network. It neither explains nor even ascribes motives to Mark Zuckerberg—no vision, no strategy, no goals.
The movie quickly admits that money doesn’t matter to Zuckerberg. So why did he build Facebook? The Social Network offers no answer, except perhaps that an outsider wanted in, but that doesn’t begin to explain what he has accomplished and why; that’s nothing but simplistic prime-time plotting. The script says nothing about him wanting to connect the world or bring communities elegant organization. It doesn’t care. For this is a movie about tactics, not strategy, about people doing hard things to each other. Elsewhere, that’s just called business.
The movie violates privacy, smears reputations, makes shit up—just what the internet is accused of doing, right? Oh, it’s entertaining, in a dark way, as much as watching the pillorying of witches used to be, I suppose. For The Social Network, geeks and entrepreneurs are as mysterious and frightening as witches. Its writer, Aaron Sorkin, admits as much in New York Magazine. “He says unapologetically that he knows almost nothing about the 2010 iteration of Facebook, adding that his interest in computer-aided communication goes only as far as emailing his friends.” Sorkin himself says, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” Making shit up.
New York’s Mark Harris knows, in an aside at least, what this movie is really about. “The Social Network can be seen as a well-aimed spitball thrown at new media by old media.” Except it’s not really old media that’s spitting but neonew media. Sorkin is a member of the Young Curmudgeons’ Guild, joining Gladwell, Carr, Anderson, Rowan, Morozov, and Lanier. Old media resists change. These guys want to deny the internet credit for it.
The Social Network understands obnoxious old-money (the cartoon-colored, Zuckerberg-suing Winklevoss twins), obnoxious new-money (Sean Parker, though David Kirkpatrick says in Vanity Fair that he is “both more complex and more interesting”), and the pretentious intellectual (a fantasy of Harvard’s then-President, Larry Summers). And it thinks it understands victims (Facebook cofounder and former Zuckerberg friend Eduardo Saverin). I met Saverin once, in a panel put on by an ad network, which Saverin patronized on Facebook’s behalf and which served just the kinds of tacky ads Zuckerberg didn’t want for his company because he knew the value of cool and he had a much bigger vision than Saverin had. That’s likely why Saverin had to go; whether The Social Network knows it or not, it makes that clear. It’s just business. And as for the Winklevii, they didn’t invent crap. Ideas, especially obvious ones, are worthless; every entrepreneur and geek knows that execution is everything. Zuckerberg’s fellow Harvard drop-out Bill Gates didn’t invent crap, either, but he did execute. That’s business.
The Social Network doesn’t understand entrepreneurs and geeks, or at least not the one here. So it turns him into an other. It makes him weird. It portrays Zuckerberg as—let’s be blunt—Aspergery: blinkless, humorless, heartless, incapable of being *cough* social or of having *cough* friends. I’ve met Zuckerberg four or five times, most lately interviewing him for Public Parts. I don’t know him. Maybe nobody does. But I can testify at least that he has charm. He does smile. He tells jokes. And he has a vision.
Zuckerberg understands the structure and motives of friendship even though The Social Network calls him friendless. In a flash during the deposition scenes that make up its narrative spine (perhaps because only lawyering could make coding look exciting), the movie gives us an anecdote—based on a true story, as it turns out—about the Harvard art class Zuckerberg didn’t attend in his sophomore year as he was inventing Facebook. Here is Zuckerberg telling the story in 2007: He posted to a web page the images of the art he should have studied, sent an email to his classmates offering a “study guide,” and watched as they distilled the essence of each piece. The punchline: Not only did Zuckerberg ace the final but the prof said the class as a whole did better than usual. I saw that as a perfect tale of social collaboration, a lesson in wikithink. The Social Network called it cheating. And right there lies the movie’s disconnect—not between Zuckerberg and friendship but between the movie and the new world it can’t comprehend but pretends to portray.
The Social Network is the anti-social movie. It distrusts and makes no effort to understand the phenomenon right in front of its nose. It disapproves—as media people, old and neonew, do—of rabblerous (or drunk or drugged-up or oversexed) masses doing what they do. Ah, but its fans will say, it’s really just a drama about a man. But that’s where it fails most. It can’t begin to explain this man because it doesn’t grok what he made—what he’s still making (“We don’t even know what it is yet,” Zuckerberg says in the movie, “It’s never finished”).
The Social Network is the anti-geek movie. It is the story that those who resist the change society is undergoing want to see. It says the internet is not a revolution but only the creation of a few odd, machine-men, the boys we didn’t like in college. The Social Network is the revenge on the revenge of the nerds.
I know my risk here. I’m putting myself again in the position of defending the internet, just as David Kirkpatrick is making himself Facebook’s apologist. Maybe we’re both hypnotized by the Zuckerberg charisma Sorkin cannot see. Maybe we’ve been hanging out with business people so long we cannot see the Greek tragedy in it. Maybe. Though if all you want is a tale of hard-nosed business leading to human drama among geeks, you could film the story of Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, or—coming soon to a theater near you—Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
In Zuckerberg and Facebook—and the internet—I see a far bigger and better story than the one Sorkin delivers. As research for Public Parts, I happen to be reading the wonderful book, The Gutenberg Revolution, by John Man, which digs through scant records to try to understand what drove the man who used technology to disrupt an old world and enable people to create a new one. Gutenberg was a technologist, secretive and controlling. He was a businessman (one of the early capitalists who created one of the early industries, really). He drove tough bargains. He was competitive. He was accused by the Dutch of stealing someone else‘s idea. Oh, and he apparently broke up badly with at least one woman, Man says. In the hand of a Sorkin scribe of the day, I imagine Gutenberg would only be a weirdo: We don’t trust what he’s doing to our world, we don’t understand it, so we don’t like him.
You’re going to see The Social Network. You should. It’s well-crafted. But as you watch, I urge you to look at what it says not just about Mark Zuckerberg but about us, us geeks. I look forward to the discussion.
: LATER: Aaron Sorkin’s worldview, 2007: “Everybody’s voice oughtn’t be equal.”
: AND: I’m amazed by the meme I see in comments here but especially in those at HuffingtonPost: It’s not a documentary, so it’s ok to make shit up. An odd defense. Sorkin et al don’t put a caveat up at the start of the film. They make a movie about a man named Mark Zuckerberg starting a service called Facebook. They didn’t film it at Schmarvard. I don’t buy that.